After Leaving the High-School Classroom, Kevin James Fires Off Political Rage as MC Son of Nun
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“I’m proud to be a minority in the minority of people that choose to question authority.” So says Son of Nun (as in nobody’s kid, not the child of a nun), the soft-spoken, outspoken, hard-rhyming author of Blood and Fire, his recently released 17-track debut wake-up session. It’s a whirlwind of sounds and ideas that may be too avant-garde for most ears, but the ambition of its original beats and unrelenting political commentary is hard to ignore. One part Zach De la Rocha, one part Chuck D, and one part Roni Size, this Sandy Spring-bred UMBC grad and local high-school history teacher is sneaking out of the underground with the help of a major compilation, left-wing support, and good, old-fashioned mic skills. Class is in session.
The word “ambitious” is rarely used to describe rappers these days. With the exception of your Kool Keiths or MF Dooms, in rap “ambition” is relegated to talk about guns, drugs, and bitches in a different way from the other guy rapping about guns, drugs, and bitches. Elsewhere, “ambition” describes a rapper’s business aspirations—getting a clothing line started, branding water—but rarely refers to content.
Son of Nun is all about the content. “My style is political, upfront, conscious, revolutionary, relevant, [but] still kind of fun,” says the 27-year-old, born Kevin James, as he politely sips his hot tea on a frosty winter afternoon in a Fells Point bar. It’s hard to imagine this articulate yet unenthusiastic, almost dull dude is the same cat that attacks the microphone with such passion and fire. It’s like watching Clark Kent talk about Superman. “[I’m] not too abstract and up in the clouds [that] people can’t get an understanding of what’s going on. Just relevant.”
Commercially, the mainstream hip-hop public isn’t very interested in hearing about politics, even if a few of today’s MCs are more politically vocal and proactive. Ludacris took shots at Bill O’Reilly, and socially conscious MC Kanye West enjoyed an amazing 2004. P. Diddy turned a voter-registration plan into a T-shirt-selling plan. And Jadakiss traded in his usual to ask, “Why Bush knock down the towers?”
Son of Nun is a dramatic contrast to his mainstream counterparts. He blasts Trent Lott in song and participated in one of the biggest anti-war compilations to date, 2004’s Peace Not War Vol. 2, produced by London’s Peace Not War organization. S.O.N. has attended anti-war rallies and performed at various politically conscious events, from universities and activist conferences to the Jan. 20 counterinaugural rally in Washington’s Malcolm X Park.
“Part of hip-hop is putting it all out there, confronting stuff you see as being bullshit,” James says. “So, no apologies.”
That unapologetic style fuels tracks such as “Fightback,” “nine.eleven,” and “Who’s the Real Terrorist?” His roommate and collaborator DJ Krimson sears the tracks with drum ’n’ bass-influenced beats beneath James’ dizzying, politically charged lyrics. In “Free Palestine,” Krimson whips up an airy, uptempo backbone over which James spits, “I was born under an apparatus/ that downgraded my class status/ from citizen to subhuman savage/ it’s hard to fathom but even harder to manage/ I’m a second-class citizen in the land of my origin.” It’s a boisterous combination of medium and message that accounts for why James is as comfortable opening for Roni Size as he is performing at political functions.
The only time James shows any caution is when asked about himself, especially his family. “My mom’s from Jamaica and my dad’s from Barbados, [but] he wasn’t around, so I never really knew him enough to miss him,” he says. And that’s pretty much where his backstory ends. “I’d rather not say” is his repeated response to subsequent personal questions, such as where he actually teaches (a Baltimore City school he refuses to name) or more detail about his family, especially Mom. “She’s concerned about what I say in my music,” he admits.
Namely track 10, titled “Trent Lott”—aimed, obviously, at the former Senate majority leader and his half-assed apology for praising the once-segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential run. The scathing a cappella tongue-lashing starts with a simple statement, “I had to write something when I heard that shit was going down,” before erupting into, “Headline: White supremacist found assassinated/ Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms found castrated,” and boils over into, “You’re not sorry, you got caught/ and now it’s time to make your body cash in the check your mouth bought/ I’ll apply for affirmative action to get an equal opportunity to put that ass in traction.”
James doesn’t back down from the verse. “Confronting racism is, I feel, relevant,” he says. “[My mother’s] real concerned that people that think like him may come after me. I don’t [think] the government’s gonna be after me or anything like that. A lot of people say those kinds of things, but she’s concerned as a parent.”
Besides, perceived controversy pales in comparison to what almost silenced James for real. “When I was, like, 16, I had thyroid cancer,” he says. “And that actually made me want to speak more because there was a chance I could’ve lost my voice after that operation. At the time I had never thought of it like that. I heard I might lose my voice or my voice may be altered. They removed my thyroid gland, and I take medication daily. I feel like I sound the same, though, it just forced me to value my voice more and try to use it.”
He shaped this adolescent passion to be heard as he dabbled in poetry at the predominately white Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring in Montgomery County. He came to teaching through the undergraduate fog of figuring things out at UMBC. “I changed my major a few times,” he admits. “Biology, psychology, then physical therapy. I got an internship and I didn’t like it. It was too monotonous. A friend gave me a few books, [James Loewen’s] Lies My Teacher Told Me and [Howard Zinn’s] A People’s History of the United States. And [then] I started taking history courses.”
Now James teaches history, and he says he tries to bring the same honesty to the class that he does to his rhymes. “You can’t be around now after 9-11, now after what’s been happening in Iraq, and not be skeptical of the Bush administration or people in power in general,” he says. “And a lot of the kids I teach are very skeptical of authority and they have a lot of questions.”
In many ways, dealing with those questions is what fuels both the MC and the teacher. That sincerity of purpose earned James a spot on the Peace Not War Vol. 2 compilation, where SON appears alongside Ani DiFranco, Le Tigre, Jane’s Addiction, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Lyrics Born, Lifesavas, Anti-Flag, and Sonic Youth. The goal of the compilation was to raise funds for peace groups while providing a soundtrack for the anti-war movement. “I’ve been a part of activist groups for a while, like the campaigning to end the death penalty, International Socialist Organization, Black Student Union,” James says. “Just different groups that are trying to do something, so [that] influences the music I make.”
That music is slowly finding an audience, too. A few years ago, you could’ve caught SON at the Ottobar, Fletcher’s, or Washington’s Nation opening for Mr. Lif or Tislam the Great, but these days James splits his time between teaching freshman history, participating in anti-war demonstrations—like a recent one at Fort Bragg in North Carolina—and kicking knowledge about Iraqi prisoner abuse cover-ups and such. This week he participates in an anti-death penalty event at the University of Maryland, protesting the state’s scheduled April 18 execution of Vernon Lee Evans. Add that to the April 6 “Throwing This Rock Called Hip-Hop” Free Palestine gig recently confirmed at the University of Southern California and more shows on the horizon (including with Dead Prez’s M1 in Washington April 14), and Son of Nun’s practice of putting his life where his mouth is earning him a well-earned rep in both hip-hop and activism.
But at the end of the day, James says it’s not about him. “If I get to enjoy the kind of success of Rage Against the Machine or Public Enemy, that would be great,” he admits. “[But] if I end up just touring around and opening for larger acts and doing collaborations, that’s fine with me, too. As long as the message is getting out.” Class dismissed.